How Jackie Robinson ignited Greenville’s civil rights movement
04/06/2013 10:00 PM
04/07/2013 9:19 AM
The boy prayed, but the rain would not stop. He watched his father’s eyes as his father watched the umpires walk around the base paths.
The umpires stepped on first base. It held firm. They stepped on second base. It held firm.
They stepped on third base and it sank.
Charlie Jackson knew then that his 7-year-old son and the rest of his family would not see the man who had changed everything.
“We prayed a prayer above all prayers,” civil rights icon Jesse Jackson said decades later, during a History Channel documentary. “Let the rain stop. Tears flowed with greater intensity than the raindrops, and we never saw them. They never came. We left wet, crying, brokenhearted, trying to see Jackie Robinson.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers never stepped off the train that day in 1949 for a scheduled exhibition game in Greenville. That moment stayed with Jackson for years to come and, for Greenville’s small African-American community, it served as a prologue to an event 10 years later that sparked the greatest chapter in the city’s civil rights history.
When the highly anticipated movie “42” hits theaters later this week, the events that took place 10 years after that rainout won’t be addressed. But the Robinson biopic is still well worth everyone’s time, said one-time Greenville resident Dorris Wright.
“It’s a movie not only about breaking the color barrier in baseball, but also a movie about life as we knew it, and it’s not during the Civil War,” she said. “It was the 20th century. Children should go see it to see how far we’ve come but how we still have miles to go before we sleep.”
Wright was there when the first words of Greenville’s next chapter were penned. The giants of that time seemingly walked among the stars on errands teenagers like her could not understand.
Jackie Robinson was one of them until the day he returned to Greenville. The events that transpired on that day revealed him to be no different than anyone else – for better and worse.
After Robinson famously shattered Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he went on to make six All-Star Game appearances and win the league’s 1949 Most Valuable Player Award.
After his playing days, Robinson became a fixture on the speaking circuit and a key player in the NAACP’s membership drive. It was in that role that he returned to Greenville on Oct. 25, 1959, to speak at the NAACP convention at Greenville Memorial Auditorium.
A contingent from the organization went to Greenville Municipal Airport to await Robinson’s Eastern Airlines flight. When they took seats in the main waiting room, airport officials asked them to move to the colored lounge or face arrest.
The group acquiesced and waited for the plane outside. Robinson’s plane arrived, and the group left without incident. At the auditorium, Robinson spoke eloquently, making strong impressions on a 16-year-old Wright and a 15-year-old Leola Robinson-Simpson.
“I was used to the more passionate fire and brimstone,” said Robinson-Simpson. “But I remember (Robinson) as being very soft-spoken, but commanding attention. He was one of those individuals that could speak softly but carry a powerful presence.”
“I saw him as a very soft man, but when you see somebody of that stature you get one impression of being very caring,” she said.
Jackson had graduated from Greenville’s Sterling High in the spring of 1959 and was at the University of Illinois on a football scholarship. At the time of Robinson’s speech, he was growing frustrated by what he perceived to be a racist agenda limiting his chances to play quarterback. Motivated in part by Robinson’s life, he also wanted to pursue a career in public speaking, but he was limited in participation with the school’s competitive speaking team, due to the color of his skin.
By then, he had heard Robinson’s words many times and they had resonated with him.
“The sense of independence and character Jackie experience on the field transcended into civilian life,” Jackson said in the History Channel documentary. “That’s why the most dominant figure in my formative years, way before I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an adult, was Jackie Robinson.”
When the NAACP leadership took Robinson back to the airport, the first of many cosmic tumblers clicked into place and the door to a new world cracked open.
No one in Greenville spoke like Pastor James Hall. Young, colorful and full of the fire and brimstone Simpson spoke of, the 25-year-old leader of the Springfield Baptist Church knew what would happen upon Robinson’s return to the airport. [View an interview with Hall at the end of this story.]
When Robinson took his seat in the main lounge, airport officials once more asked the group to move to the colored lounge.
Robinson himself recounted the events that followed in a letter that appeared in the Baltimore African-American newspaper two weeks later:
“We arrived at the airport 20 minutes before our plane was due to leave, and I stood while my companions took the only available seats near a television set provided for passenger use. We purposely bypassed a small segregated corner of the terminal which was labeled “Colored Lounge,” for we knew that four years ago the Interstate Commerce Commission had ruled that segregation of interstate travelers in public waiting rooms was unlawful.
“We had hardly arrived when a disheveled, unshaven man in a jacket approached us.
“He was wearing a gun and told us he was a policeman. In halting, seemingly uneducated speech, he told us either to move on or be moved.
“As we tried to determine this man’s authority, another arrived who said that he was O.L. Andrews, the airport manager. He, too, ordered my companions to get out of their seats, and when he was informed that he had made no impression whatsoever, he summoned a uniformed police officer. When the officer arrived, my companions rose to join the discussion and the manager turned to the officer and said: ‘If they sit down, put them in jail.’
“Closter (sic) Current, director of branches for the NAACP, bristled at this and informed the manager that threats of jail can no longer be counted on to frighten colored Americans who are sure of their rights. We then informed the officer that we had no desire to create a disturbance, but pointed out that this was a federally-subsidized public facility which came under the rules and regulations of the ICC and we asked under what Greenville law were we being ordered to move.
“The officer apparently was completely perplexed, for after making a quick telephone call he decided to quit the scene. We stayed on in the main waiting room until our plane arrived.
“And before we boarded for our flight to New York, we were greatly heartened by a crowd of well-wishers who entered the terminal as a means of expressing their support for our stand.”
For Hall, whose wife Elizabeth’s decision to take a seat in the whites-only lounge instigated the events, what transpired was exactly what he had hoped for.
“This (gave) me the kind of momentum I need to really do what needs to be done, and so from that point on, we started planning,” Hall said during a 2011 interview at Furman University.
For the next two months, he energized the city’s black community and called for a march on the airport.
“Martin had nothing on Reverend Hall,” Wright said.
“He was charismatic and had a great deal of passion and leadership about the struggle,” Robinson-Simpson said. “The winds of change were blowing, and we saw an opportunity to bring about change.”
By December, the arrangements were in place. On New Year’s Day 1960, there would be a march, beginning at Springfield Baptist Church and continuing at the airport, to call for an end to segregation.
Led by Hall, Wright would be there. Robinson-Simpson would be there. And home from college, so, too, would Jackson. Hall said it was incumbent upon the community’s youth to step up, for the elder generation was trapped by the paralyzing fear of angering their white employers and opposed to his desire to march.
“He was the pastor who first introduced me to social action, Jesus and social change and Mahatma Ghandi,” Jackson told author Roger Burns in Burns’ biography of Jackson. “Pastor Hall led a march, over much resistance from the community, because they couldn’t understand why a preacher could do such things.”
The march – 1,000 people strong – went off without a hitch on Jan. 1, 1960.
Then-Governor Fritz Hollings had directed local and state law enforcement to allow the protesters to proceed while keeping the hostile elements among the onlookers – which included a large Ku Klux Klan presence – from engaging them.
Inside the terminal, according to a Jan. 2, 1960, account in The Greenville Piedmont newspaper, Orangeburg Rev. Matthew McCollough delivered a resolution, “That we will not make a pretense of being satisfied with the crumbs of citizenship while other(s) enjoy the whole loaf only by right of a white-skinned birth” and, “That with faith in this nation and its God we shall not relent, we shall not rest, we shall not compromise, we shall not be satisfied until every vestige of racial discrimination and segregation has been eliminated from all aspects of our public life.”
Inspired by the discrimination against an American icon, stoked by a fiery, energetic young pastor and spurred on by the seeming apathy of those they considered the oppressors, news of what happened that day spread throughout the Southeast, carried by college students back to their campuses upon the end of their winter breaks.
Not long after the Greenville march came the famous Greensboro sit-in and another sit-in at the Greenville Library, led in part by Jackson, who was one of the “Greenville Eight,” arrested for trespassing.
To Wright, Robinson-Simpson and Jackson, the Jackie Robinson incident was the rock thrown in the pond, with its ripples playing a key role in changing their world.
Robinson-Simpson would go on to a career in the public arena. Today she is a state representative for the 25th District out of Greenville.
“Absolutely, it more or less sparked the 1960 civil rights movement. It was a catalyst, for after that march took place, the sit-in movement began,” Robinson-Simpson said.
Wright would hold numerous positions of leadership among the NAACP and other groups striving for equality.
“If you discriminate against me because my clothes are ragged, we can remedy that. If you discriminate against my smell, we can remedy that. If you discriminate against the color of my skin, then that becomes your problem,” Wright said. “You don’t realize you’re making history; you see that there’s something that’s not right and you don’t think in terms of unjust, but that it just didn’t feel well. It didn’t look right.”
Hall moved on to Triumph Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where he has become a civil rights icon. Hall’s time in Greenville and his stand in the wake of Robinson’s mistreatment remain a vital part of who he is.
If it had merely been a terrific athlete or champion being wronged on that October day, the events that followed might not have taken place, according to Jackson. Instead, it took a hero of the people being unjustly humbled.
“The difference between heroes and champions is, champions are the best at what they do. They win a race on a given day there are a lot of champions,” he said. “Champions ride on the shoulders of the people. But heroes come in with another quality of necessity.
“There are those special moments when you need some David to beat some Goliath.
“You need some Joe Louis to defeat some Max Schmelling. You need some Jesse Owens to defy some Hitler.
“Our need was Jackie Robinson. So in that sense, there are those who come behind him who hit more runs and scored more bases and made more money, but they could never compare to Jackie because they are champions but they aren’t heroes. He was an authentic hero.”
Video: The Rev. James Hall interview at Furman University
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